Monday, 16 September 2013

The New generation of German winemakers

It was a pleasure to chat with Cornelius Dönnhoff and Nik Weis, owners of Weingut Dönnhoff in Nahe and Weingut St. Urbans-Hof in Mosel at a recent tasting organised by Kerry Wines.

There are commonalities between these two wineries. Both are family owned and highly regarded in their own right. Cornelius and Nik are the latest generation to be in charge of the estates, with Cornelius only taking over in 2000 and Nik back in 1997. Both respect the traditions and are committed to producing top quality wines, just like their fathers and grandfathers.

But their wines, though all Rieslings, are different. Dönnhoff is in Nahe, between Mosel and Rheinhessen. As in Mosel, the vineyards are on
steep south-facing slopes on the banks of the Nahe river. It is warmer, so the wine has riper fruit characters than Mosel’s but still retains the acidity. Cornelius, like his father, likes clean, straightforward wines. He may use cultured yeasts but only the neutral kind whose sole job is to ferment the grape juice rather than enhancing flavours, thus allowing the wine to express itself. Dönnhoff has nine Grand Cru vineyards, and according to Cornelius they have different soil types, ranging from slate at Hermannshöhle and Kreuznacher to volcanic at Felsenberg and loam at Krötenpfuhl. All grapes are vinified the same way but the wines from each site taste different. Before joining the family business, Cornelius had worked in Australia and New Zealand but he realised that because of the differences in climate he couldn’t blindly apply New World techniques at Dönnhoff. He believes his father’s way of working with the vines and grapes is still the best way to express the Nahe terroir. I asked if he would blend the different crus together to make a superblend. His answer was a definite no. The wines have been made as single vineyard wines since his father’s day and they are as good as they can be. By the way, his father is Helmut Dönnhoff, named German Winemaker of the Year in 1999 by the Gault Millau Guide to German Wines.

Turning to Nik Weis, the third generation owner. Technically he is not a member of ‘Generation Riesling’, a term used to refer to the young generation of German winemakers under 35 years old (sorry Nik), but he is no doubt their inspiration. Weingut St. Urbans-Hof, because of Nik’s consistently high standards, was admitted as a member of the prestigious VDP (Association of German Prädikat Estates) in 2000. The 32ha of vineyards are located in Mosel and Saar where the soil has several colours of slate—blue, grey and red—that contribute to the distinctive minerality of Mosel Riesling. He only makes Riesling as he firmly believes the terroir of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region—cool nights, marginal sunlight, steep slopes, the heat-absorbing slate and the river—is ideally suited to expressing the elegance and finesse of Riesling. I also like his philosophy: "Sweetness belongs to Mosel wine like bubbles belong to Champagne". The combination of residual sugar, crisp acidity and minerality create a harmoniously fruity sensation, and the natural sweetness also extends the ageing potential. He explained to us that natural residual sugar in wine is mainly fructose, which is light and fruity, in contrast to the grape concentrate or süssreserve that is added to dry wine to make lesser sweet wines. Grape concentrate is glucose; it makes wine cloying and heavy rather than light and elegant.

Having said that, Nik reckons climate change has allowed German winemakers to start making less-sweet wines. Sugar is necessary to balance the high level of harsh malic acid in a traditional Riesling, but, as the climate warms, the concentration of malic acid decreases so less sugar is needed to balance the wine. We tasted two Spätleses from Leiwener Laurentiuslay vineyard. The 2001 vintage has 50g/l of residual sugar but the 2011 vintage, which was much warmer, has only half as much (25g/l). Both tasted delicious and balanced. With consumers moving towards drier wines, both Nik and Cornelius agreed that climate change is to their advantage as they are now able to make good quality dry Rieslings. The Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Grosses Gewächs dry Riesling 2012 was a fine example.

We tried four Spätleses at the tasting, two each from Nik and Cornelius (vintage 2001 and 2011). They were just fantastic: rich, with a depth of flavour supported by a crisp acidity, resulting in concentrated yet elegant wines. I didn’t like sweet Riesling when I first started tasting wine, but I have come to realise that it was the badly made sweet Rieslings that I didn’t like. Clearly, fructose and glucose really do taste different!

Both Dönnhoff and St. Urbans-Hof are available from Kerry Wines.

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